I’m Not a Short Order Cook: Raising the Next Generation of Foodies

Let me start off by stating this fact about myself: I am not a short order cook. Never have been, never will be. I make meals I expect everyone to eat. You don’t eat what I serve, you don’t eat. End of story. I find that a lot of today’s parents subscribe to the short order cook piloting the parental helicopter mentality, not allowing their children to explore the world around them without being coddled to death by smothering parents. I’m not exactly sure when this particular parenting style became en vogue, but it needs to stop and it should begin with a war on chicken nuggets morning, noon and night! I’ll admit I’ve given my children the occasional breaded poultry chunks when rushing to get ready for a night out with the hubby, a meeting or when dinner is just not happening because time was not on my side that day but those occasions are few and far between. My meals are planned in advance, ingredients purchased and ready for creating a family feast that all will partake in at our table. This is the way I grew up, it worked and it continues to work some 30 plus years later with my own children. End rant. On to my point

I believe in exposing children to a variety of foods which not only expands their culinary horizons but gives them a global view in their very own kitchen. Variety is the spice of life, right? So when I cook a meal, I choose flavors I know each member of my family will enjoy but maybe I’m cooking middle eastern or south african rather than good old American standard fare. The ingredients might look or sound strange but once they taste it, the scary feeling of the unknown quickly fads to ready acceptance of a new taste, a new culture, a new understanding that not everything has to be breaded, fried and molded into a tiny nugget to taste good. If you allow your children to continually rule meal time, not only do they lose out in developing more well-rounded taste buds and the likelihood of trying new things in life, but you may actually be depriving them of dietary nutrition necessary for development. As parents we all battle the terrible toddlers, occasional food strikes and feeding the dog and plants unwanted cuisine. But giving in to their demands night after night only leads to a larger problem. Roles are reversed, children are in control yet you’re still pulling your hair out trying to cook acceptable meals, fighting a losing battle. Unless they are the ones cooking, your children are not in control! Remember that. So what do you do when you have a food striker, control-freak or dog and plant feeder? Simple. Disguise and deny. Well, deny until after the meal is over.

Introduce variety slowly, using similar tasting foods they are used to eating. Look online for multi-cultural cuisine that uses simple ingredients and spices, making the meal visually pleasing as well as tasty. We know children are visually stimulated by their food. If it looks confusing or too busy, children will not eat it. Indian and Asian foods are good translators. The food is generally warm and sweet. Start with easy dishes like Chicken Curry, saffron or jasmine rice and spiced broccoli. All recognizable foods but with an Indian twist. Make these types of meals at least once a week, rotating the favorites in every two weeks to reintroduce the flavors. As their taste buds adapt to the variety in their new diet, begin to introduce more complicated meals and flavors from other parts of the world, again starting with simple dishes to allow your children the comfort of knowing what they are consuming. One of my children’s favorite meals is a Pakistani casserole known as Keema. It is made with ground sirloin (or ground turkey), tomatoes, onions, peas, potatoes and spiced with curry, cinnamon, turmeric and ginger. The flavors meld well together and are warm and familiar yet not typically used together in American cuisine. Fear of the unknown is easily overcome when it comes to food. You just have to spice it or disguise it right.

Dining out with children can be a real challenge. Always the same thing, hamburgers, chicken nuggets, hot dogs, mac and cheese, typical kids menu. Not that these things are bad or undesirable. We all like comfort food. But instead of having them order from the kids menu, try appetizers or small plates. They are generally priced about the same but allow a greater variety of foods. As you see your children’s culinary taste buds broaden you will begin to see them branch out at restaurants, lacking the fear of trying something new. For instance, our family recently attended the pre opening of STG Trattoria in Atlanta. We knew the menu would be limited and realized the challenge ahead of us was to make sure they ate a good dinner while not complaining about the lack of familiar foods on their plate. Thankfully it was Italian so our chances of finding flavors they would understand were greater. We ordered the margarita pizza, pork cheek bocatini pasta, swiss chard ravioli and bruschetta topped with eggplant, tomatoes and mozzarella. We knew the last one was going to be a stretch. Eggplant. We didn’t tell them, just cut a piece for each, placed it on their plates and told them to dig in. My daughter went back for seconds only later finding out she had been consuming eggplant. She loved it; proud of herself for trying something most kids would have told mom and dad to talk to the hand. My son’s favorite kid oddity to consume, the yucca fries at Bone Garden Cantina’s brunch on Sundays. Coupled with their delicious cheese dip, he was hooked immediately never thinking about the root he was eating. All he knows is that it tastes really good and he likes it! Now I realize that my children are still young and their taste buds will continue to develop and change as they get older, but by allowing them to safely explore their food, I feel confident they will be willing to try anything at least once. I always ask them to try something from my plate when we dine out especially when I know they have never tried it before. My children now know, resistance is futile. Take a bite, you might like it.

So the next time your children begin to fuss and pitch a holy fit about dinner, don’t give in, take back control by cooking a meal with familiar ingredients with a cultural twist. If they don’t eat it, they don’t eat dinner. Believe me, they won’t starve. Eventually the war will be won and they will eat and enjoy it. Hovering over them like hawks never solves anything and makes children more fearful to experience new things. This includes food. Dietary restrictions aside, there really isn’t anything a child shouldn’t eat. Say no to chicken nuggets and yes to a more global food perspective. Your children will thank you for it…later.